Advantages-Disadvantages of hiring a tour guide in China


Travel in China is notoriously difficult especially as Chinese characters are indecipherable for most visitors. Tour guides offer their services at most sites, at a price. When is this money well spent? What are the potential pitfalls?

What makes a good tour guide?

A good tour guide will know interesting information about the site you are visiting and will be able to communicate that to you (whoever many that is) in a clear and concise way. There should be no irrelevant/uninteresting numbers, no repitition and everything should be heard by the whole group. Unfortunately, many sites in China are noisy places and the last asect is very difficult to achieve without some repitition.

A good tour guide will be honest and reliable. Punctuality is one aspect of reliability.The tour guide should always be waiting for the customers, never the other way around. An honest guide will not try to make money from other sources - especially undeclared commissions. Unfortuntely the domestic tour system is riddled with commissions and many tour guides simply expect to make extra money by this means. That can mean unplanned shopping excursions wasting your valuable time.

A great tour guide will also be a character; someone who adds to your experience simply because they are pleasant, hospitable, zany ... whatever it is that makes them a real person. Each great guide is different. Only the poor ones tend to seem the same.

What are the advantages of hiring a tour guide?

A tour guide should be able to keep you away from any serious dangers and annoyances. If something untoward does happen (and an accident can happen whatever precautions are taken) they will know the procedures to get you help quickly. In most cases this may be simply finding a local doctor or reporting a loss - but these things could otherwise consume a lot of time and cause considerable grief.

A guide should also be able to answer your questions, whether they be related to the site you are visiting or to some other issue about your travels. They will have contacts that can help with more complicated issues or should at least be able to point you in the direction of a solution.

You should find that having a tour guide in charge of your arrangements means that things run more efficiently. You should not have to wait around queuing as much and any unnecessary travl should have been eliminated by good planning.

Certainly you will get more information from having a tour guide with you. Even the poorest guide will add more than you can get from books. Interaction is the key; as long as your guide speaks some English you will be able to ask for clarification - something a book/video cannot do.

... and the disadvantages

A tour guide adds expense to your trip. In China that is unlikely to be a huge amount even if you have guided services every day.

Guides do tend to have their own agendas, and any guide that is limited to the same sight will find short cuts and commission opportunities that you will find hard to resist. You can limit the damage here by talking to your guide at the outset (and the travel service before that if you can) to establish what you will and will not accept. Some issues may otherwise simply be misunderstandings.

If you are the independent type then you will probably regret a loss of some element of discovery. It is always nice to find things for yourself and to feel that you have done something that others have not done. A truly great guide may be able to give you the impression that you have discovered things for yourself, but that would be a rare occurrence anywhere.

How to find a good tour guide?

If you use a reputable travel service to make your arrangements then you should find that their tour guides are at least good, maybe even great. A tour guide who works regularly for the same travel service will have to follow their rules. Too many complaints risks losing a good reputation (or worse, acquiring a bad one) and no agency wants that.

That doesn't solve the issue, it just shifts it to a different level. How to find a reputable travel service. The internet is an excellent tool here. Do a bit of research and find some potential agencies. Then search for these in forums dealing with your intended destination. Read any feedback is there.

It is easy for one disgruntled customer to have a disproportionate say so do consider what they are complaining about and any responses/replies posted by others about the same agency before deciding whether there is sufficient justification for you to forego their services. It may be that what you read actually indicates a service that you might appreciate. 'The guide was too slow' might indicate one that would allow you to see what you want rather than hurry you to the shops at the end.

If you are spending several days in one place then you can book only the first activity with the one guide until you are satisfied that you are happy with them and want to book more. Many people do prefer to have the same guide each day though - perhaps better the devil you know.

Good guides deserve a tip. Great guides deserve to be recommended through forums etc. After all, if you took such advice before your trip then you should repay that for the travellers that follow as well as for the people that made your trip special. Travellers tend to be a healthy community looking out for each other. That's great in these times when we hear so much that is negative about society and societies.

My Own China-wide Business

China Journeys is a UK registered company offering a range of travel packages, always with something a little different to make your travel in China more special.

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Comments 18 comments

Charon 6 years ago

Thank you so much for all the information. These will surely be a great help.

Aussieteacher profile image

Aussieteacher 6 years ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

We booked day tours in Beijing through the travel bureau at the airport. Day one was fine, our guide was excellent, the food great and everything went well. Day two, the bus was too small and NOT AIR CONDITIONED, and certainly not comfortable and the tour guide was terrible.

fordie profile image

fordie 6 years ago from China Author

Aussieteacher: What did the travel bureau have to say about the second day? They should have offered you some compensansation if they did not provide the services promised

EJ Travel profile image

EJ Travel 6 years ago from Shanghai, China

Normally we don't suggest you hire tour guide at airport, that rate would be more expenisve than you booked through travel agent by internet, another reason is the quality of services couldn't be guaranteed.

fordie profile image

fordie 6 years ago from China Author

EJ Travel: That's a bit of a sweeping statement. To afford the rents at an airport any agency must be fairly sizeable, and they can't maintain that size without providing a reasonable quality of service. The sign of a great agency is that they are responsive when things do not go well and it would be interesting to hear how this particular agency dealt with the issues mentioned.

EJ Travel profile image

EJ Travel 6 years ago from Shanghai, China

Fordie, hiring a counter at airpot for offering travel services is not hard work for travel agent, it don't need large size here, and the most important reason is the owner has tour guide resources (even if tour guides and owner are not in 1 agent) and could find one at once if travelers need, secondly, most of travelers getting services at airport will visit China only 1 time in their life maybe, for some agents, offerring good/not good services is same and only one result for them, they don't hope the travelers' back, that's why the quality of services could not be guaranteed sometimes.

So I never suggest my clients take services at airport and they usually contact me and settle everything down before they pack the luggages.. :)

Just personal viewpoint here..

fordie profile image

fordie 6 years ago from China Author

I think we both agree that there are better choices than the first available - and that travellers ought to do a bit of research before arriving. If they find local guides with a strong reputation then they are less likely to be let down.

Maybe we can here from someone who works at an airport agency (even if it is not necessarily in China)

EJ TRAVEL 6 years ago

Yes I agree with you on this point, and it's said that there is travel services offerred by travel office at Vancouver airport, if so the quality of services could be guaranteed from them, it's good experience for other airports in world.

Aussieteacher profile image

Aussieteacher 6 years ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

I've just experienced a rather awful tour guide - not organised by me, but my employer. She didn't know anything, and was too vague. This was supposedly organised through a "reputable" travel agent. It seems to be a bit "hit and miss."

fordie profile image

fordie 6 years ago from China Author

As someone who has worked with and hired guides for nearly ten years I can say that 'hit and miss' is spot on. Some guides are always great; others consistently awful (one got 'sacked' by our company three times under different names); some are good so long as they are motivated (they see big commissions coming their way) and other just vary by mood. It's not easy trying to figure out who you will get let alone how they will be on the day. My point is that a good agency will recognise poor performance, apologise to the unlucky customer and eventually sift through the dross. A bad agency cares not one jot and does nothing.

ron turn profile image

ron turn 6 years ago from Melbourne

I find that it does not matter if the guide is good or BAD it's always a good idea to have a good map that you can converse around, which also keeps the guide "honest".

One jewel of a map I've found that has helped me heaps in such situations as above is a trax2 map which includes a localized phrasebook written in Chinese (characters), English and pinyin (romanization of Chinese), samples can be seen on their website

Oh yes forgot to mention they do have a Yangshuo map also and I agree with fordie, Yangshuo is one of the most scenic places to visit in China.

fordie profile image

fordie 6 years ago from China Author

I know the trax maps. Even met the guy when he was producing the Yangshuo one. Yes - very useful.

A pity if you have not experienced a really good guide. They can add much to a visit.

rjsadowski profile image

rjsadowski 5 years ago

Interesting hub and good advice.

fordie profile image

fordie 5 years ago from China Author

Thanks. This was one of my first hubs but all comments still apply

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Derdriu 4 years ago

Fordie, What an elucidating, helpful, practical, useful summary of the pros and cons of tagging around China behind a tour guide ;-]! In particular, you do a great job of listing why a visitor would want a tour guide and what makes for effective tour guiding. Additionally, it's helpful how you identify sources for finding effective tour guides and ways of appreciating those who do great jobs (recommendations, tips).

If I don't know the language, then I prefer a tour guide for the first visit. Afterwards, depending upon the country, I like to take what I've learned and run independently with it.

Thank you for sharing, voted up + all.

Respectfully, Derdriu

fordie profile image

fordie 4 years ago from China Author

Derdriu, tour guides get a lot of bad press so I feel it is necessary to defend them and those who rely on them.

I also prefer independent travel but when time is short the benefits of some local experience far outweigh the downsides

Ausemade profile image

Ausemade 4 years ago from Australia

Hi Fordie, a good hub on the pros and cons of tour guides in China. When we travel around Australia, although we like doing things on our own and at our own pace, we love booking on tours. Whilst we tend to avoid the large group tours, both are good options if you have not been to the region before. Our experience is some are good guides and some not so good... usually if the guide is a local, they tend to be good and if they love their job, they shine... voted up

fordie profile image

fordie 4 years ago from China Author


Thank you for stopping by.

Guides vary everywhere for sure. Those that are good add to the experience in many ways. It's a pity then that the money-orientated ones here tend to attract all of the attention. With a bit of research you should be able to find the right sort

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